Educated at Vanderbilt and Oxford, Ransom (1888—1974) taught at Vanderbilt from 1914 to 1938, with three years off to serve in the First World War. His students at Vanderbilt included Tate, Warren and later Jarrell. Ransom decamped in 1938 to Ohio's Kenyon College, where Jarrell and Lowell not only studied with him but lived in his family's house. Ransom's essays insist that poetry provides us with non-discursive, particular knowledge of the world, one incommensurable with the knowledge the sciences give. A 'poem celebrates the object which is real, individual, and qualitatively infinite'; it thus opposes 'practical interests [which] reduce the living object to a mere utility, and . . . sciences [which] will disintegrate it into . . . abstracts' (Ransom, 1938, p. 348). The World's Body (1938) collects his most important literary essays; later prose appeared in Beating the Bushes (1972).
'Almost all [the poems Ransom] chose to preserve', his biographer reports 'were written between 1922 and 1925', though frequently revised for later reprintings (Young, 1976a, p. 185). Ransom's poems balance his intellectual drive towards complication and paradox with the appeal of pastoral settings, formal elegance and naively beautiful subjects. Many are deeply informed by Andrew Marvell, whose stanza-forms Ransom adapted along with his attitudes. The people in Ransom's poems struggle to maintain their emotional equilibrium, to remain (in one of Ransom's titles) 'Agitato ma non troppo', 'shaken, but not as a leaf'. In 'Janet Waking' a girl mourns her dead goose; in 'Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter' a cohort of careful adults mourns a dead girl:
There was such speed in her little body, And such lightness in her footfall,
Other significant poems describe the transience of youthful beauty, rural scenes from the Upper South, love letters, and the lifelong quarrels of difficult lovers, bound to each other by their need to differ: 'he of the wide brows that were used to laurel / And she, the famed for gentleness, must quarrel. / Furious both of them, and scared, and weeping' ('Two in August').
Ransom was perhaps the last talented poet in English to rely heavily on 'courtly' beliefs about family, age and gender. His women and girls and 'scared strange little boys' seek orderly, beautiful or innocent lives, their elegance measured by his chiming stanzas, while a rough masculinity — embodied by Ransom's rough metres — threatens their innocence:
To Miriam Tazewell the whole world was villain, The principle of the beast was low and masculine, And not to unstop her own storm and be maudlin, For weeks she went untidy, she went sullen. ('Miriam Tazewell')
Though 'it would be wrong to suggest that Ransom is egalitarian in his sexual politics' (Mark Jancovitch writes), neither do his poems exalt male privilege: Ransom records instead 'a profound discomfort with the distinctions between masculinity and femininity, intellectuality and sensibility, abstraction and experience' (Jancovitch, 1993, p. 39). The protective distance in Ransom's antiquarian language gives him one way to describe events otherwise too painful, or too sexually charged, to remember. Ransom's 'Judith of Bethulia' addresses not the biblical heroine's resolve, but the male Israelites' unease: the poem relies on the 'tension' between Ransom's elaborate language and the sexual violence in his story.
Such strenuous balancings link Ransom's critical prescriptions to his poetry, as do his seventeenth-century models. Geoffrey Hill writes that 'At his best [Ransom] is himself a metaphysical poet'; 'his formal grace is in a constant state of alertness against "awkwardnesses" which, even so, contrive to irrupt into the manners and measures of the verse' (Hill, 1984, pp. 133, 135). 'Winter Remembered' closes with a sort of metaphysical conceit, but the rueful self-knowledge it figures is just Ransom's own:
Dear love, these fingers that had known your touch, And tied our separate forces first together, Were ten poor idiot fingers not worth much, Ten frozen parsnips hanging in the weather.
Allen Tate (1899—1979) grew up in Tennessee and taught at colleges there, in North Carolina, at Princeton with Blackmur, and finally in Minnesota. A Catholic convert for much of his writing life, Tate remained more committed than other New
Critics to drawing meta-political and meta-religious consequences from his ideas about literature: 'The Man of Letters in the Modern World' sees a 'battle . . . between the dehumanized society of secularism . . . and the eternal society of the communion of the human spirit' (Tate, 1968, pp. 4-5). Dehumanized by instrumental, or inappropriately scientific, thinking, we recover our full human natures in acts of aesthetic and moral judgement: 'Our powers of discrimination [as readers] . . . wait . . . upon the cultivation of our total human powers, and they represent a special application of those powers to a single medium of experience, poetry' (ibid., p. 63). Tate on occasion tentatively identified the literary symbol with the Christian Incarnation. Besides critical essays and poetry, he published biographies of Confederate leaders, and later one novel, The Fathers (1938).
Tate's poetry emphasizes confrontation and challenge, straining against its own compressed forms, and more gravely against the secular, sunny rationalism he despised. Violence can become an end in itself: 'In bulled Europa's morn / We love our land because / All night we raped her — torn, / Blue grass and glad.' The poetry, like the criticism, can express a violent nostalgia for pre-Enlightenment, Christian worldviews: 'O God of our flesh, return us to Your wrath'. Elsewhere, 'New Critical' demands for dramatic enactment and formal composure balance Tate's tones of fury or resentment. 'Ode to the Confederate Dead' (1927) draws on Eliotic methods and metrics, and on the older sub-genre of graveyard poems, to make buried Rebels instruct a disoriented speaker about the omnipresence of death, defeat, sin and guilt:
Autumn is desolation in the plot Of a thousand acres where these memories grow From the inexhaustible bodies that are not Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row.
The poem sets a proto-Christian awareness of sin against a Stoic ideal of endurance in a world where the only permanence is death, and 'only the leaves / Flying, plunge and expire'. Tate described the Ode in his own 1938 essay 'Narcissus as Narcissus'. Two significant later poems, 'The Swimmers' and 'The Buried Lake' (1953) began as parts of a never-completed terza rima autobiography.
Tate at his best found in strict forms and grave demeanours the poetic correlatives for the unfinished tragedy of the American South, and for a sense (a Southern sense, he might have declared) of honour, futility and original sin. 'Aeneas at Washington' (1933) makes its Virgilian hero into a Confederate officer, brooding on his defeat and his subsequent wanderings. Compressed and loaded with extra stresses, the pentameters of the monologue shoulder Aeneas's failures as he views his opponents' triumphalist, sterile capital:
I stood in the rain, far from home at nightfall By the Potomac, the great Dome lit the water, The city my blood had built I knew no more
While the screech-owl whistled his new delight Consecutively dark.
Stuck in the wet mire, Four thousand leagues from the ninth buried city, I thought of Troy, what we had built her for.
Born in Guthrie, Kentucky, Robert Penn Warren (1905—89) met Ransom and Tate at Vanderbilt in the early 1920s; after a Rhodes Scholarship he taught at Louisiana State University, Minnesota and Yale. Most widely known for his novel All the King's Men (1946), Warren wrote six other novels, fifteen books of poetry, and numerous essays, plays and college textbooks. In 1986 he became the United States' first official Poet Laureate. Warren's essays (see Warren, 1989) show him attending to how American poets like Whittier, Melville and Frost respond to political and historical phenomena like abolitionism and the American Civil War. His more theoretical writings tirelessly argue that good poetry creates vital knowledge about individual selves in historical and social contexts, imaginatively transforming lived experience into language faithful to its vicissitudes. This perspective lets Warren use traditionally literary—critical vocabulary to address ethical and historical questions: Democracy and Poetry (Warren, 1975) claims that 'rhythm — not mere meter, but all the pulse of movement, density, and shadings of intensity of feeling — is the most intimate and compelling factor revealing to us the nature of the "made thing"', while holding onto poetry's primary obligation: 'only insofar as the work establishes and expresses a self can it engage us' (ibid., pp. 74, 70).
The selves that emerge in Warren's poems almost invariably come to know what he appreciated in the work of Ransom: 'the haunting duality in man's experience' (Warren, 1989, p. 306). Early poems like 'Love's Parable' (1936) confront a fallen world in formal terms indebted to Ransom and his metaphysical leanings: 'As kingdoms after civil broil, / Long faction-bit and sore unmanned, / Unlaced, unthewed by lawless toil . . .'. From Promises (1957) onward, Warren combined his search to represent moral severity and mortality with an equally ambitious habit of grouping lyrics into sequences. These sequences mean to represent the mind exploring single incidents in multiple ways; in one such moment in 'Mortmain', an elegy for his father, Warren imagines the elusive nature of the past: 'The boy, / With imperial calm, crosses a space, rejoins / the shadow of woods, but pauses, turns, grins once, / And is gone.'
Book-length poems allowed Warren to scrutinize these concerns in a more sustained fashion; in Brother to Dragons (1953, revised 1979) we watch Thomas Jefferson's unfolding response to a bloody chain of events surrounding an episode in which Lilburne Lewis, Jefferson's nephew, vengefully vivisects a slave. Jefferson discovers a startling, repulsive human nature: 'Listen! the foulness sucks like mire. / The beast waits' and turns out to be 'our brother, our darling brother'. Audubon: A Vision (1969) permits biblically inflected glimpses at many kinds of violence, from homicide to game-hunting, which lend themselves neither to easy morals nor to understanding ('He slew them, at surprising distances, with his gun. / Over a body held in his hand, his head was bowed low, / But not in grief'). Such depictions reveal, in John Burt's words, 'the conflict between lyric and narrative, between the stopped time in which meaning reveals itself and the progressing time in which life is to be lived' (Burt, 1988, p. 111). Warren's fixation on poetry as a means of representing poetic struggles themselves can perhaps best be understood through his signature motif, the sunset flight of the hawk:
Scythes down another day, his motion Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear The crashless fall of stalks of Time. ('Evening Hawk', 1975)
Was this article helpful?